I started kindergarten when I was three years old. Yes, it was real kindergarten, and yes, I really was only three years old. This was back in the 70s, when no one knew to explain to my overeager young parents that there really wasn’t any benefit in putting their already undersized three year old in kindergarten. And I guess back in the day, at least some schools would take a three year old into a kindergarten class if she could pass the entrance exam.
My mother and father figured that I would have no problem acing the kindergarten entrance exam at Holy Nativity Episcopal School since by that age, I was already able to read exceptionally well.
What my parents failed to realize, however, was that while I certainly could read the front page of the Los Angeles Times to them at age three, and recite on demand my favorite Longfellow poems that my grandmother had me reading to her – accomplishments that made the doting adults in my family very proud and happy – those were the ONLY academic or other kindergarten readiness skills that I possessed. (And really, those weren’t the kind of skills that most kindergarten teachers are looking for anyway.)
At age 3, I could not add or subtract reliably. I could not write my letters very clearly yet. And as I learned on the day of that terrible, terrible kindergarten entrance exam that still haunts me, I could not keep an orange crayon inside the lines of a mapped out series of shapes on a mimeographed sheet of paper.
I remember the day of my kindergarten entrance test very well. It is, in fact, one of my earliest complex memories. I recall my father taking me to the school that day (if my mother was along, I don’t recall) and proudly explaining to the female principal and a nun-slash-teacher how well I could read, and how stellar my verbal abilities were. I could see that these admissions representatives of the small elementary school looked skeptical as I sat next to my father on the pleather couch across the office from the two of them, all 30 pounds and 2.5 feet of me (I was a very small child for my age), but I also saw their skepticism melt away as they pulled a book of nursery rhymes off the shelf in the room and asked me to read it out loud to them, which I happily did without hesitation, as I loved performing at something I knew I did so well.
After I read for them, they explained to my father that they would take me into an empty classroom so that I could be tested. That was fine with me; I didn’t have a shy bone in my body, and the whole idea of going to kindergarten sounded like great fun. So I headed down the hall with the nun, leaving my father behind in the principal’s office. I was primed and ready to do some more reading on command in order to be admitted to kindergarten.
But when we got to the slightly darkened classroom, no one asked me to read. Instead, the nun lifted me into an elementary sized desk, and placed a set of sheets of paper in front of me, each one requiring a different task. She then handed me a pencil and a box of crayons, and explained what she wanted me to do. First up was a terrifying kindergarten-level math worksheet, for which I was ill-prepared. I somehow muddled through that one. Then she asked me to tell her what the names of various shapes were on worksheet number two. I knew the square and the circle from Sesame Street, but the rectangle and triangle sounded so much alike and I didn’t want to give the wrong answer, so I shakily explained to her that I didn’t know all my shapes yet.
And then came her directions for how to complete the last worksheet – an experience that has scarred me for the rest of my life. On the sheet were small line drawings of houses and schools and churches, all connected by a roadway running among and between them. All I had to do, the nun explained, was to take the orange crayon she handed me, and draw a line from one little building to the next, all the while KEEPING THE CRAYON INSIDE THE LINES OF THE ROADWAY.
My hands began to shake. This looked impossible to someone who could not even tie her shoes yet.
“Who in the world had designed such a daunting challenge for little kids?” I remember thinking to myself. “If this is what it takes to get into kindergarten, I’ll bet there AREN’T TOO MANY KIDS IN THIS SCHOOL’S CLASSES!!!”
I don’t know how long the woman in the habit stood over me as I grasped the crayon and WILLED my hand to keep the markings I was making inside those damn lines, but it seemed like an eternity. And no matter how hard I tried, or how hard I concentrated, my hand would NOT do what I was asking of it, and a crazy orange scribble emerged all over that worksheet. It was pathetic, and I knew it.
At some point, the nun told me I could quit. She was very nice, and told me I’d done a fine job, but i knew she was lying, and I knew that they were going to dash my parents’ hopes, and inform them that not only was I not the child prodigy they believed, but that I was also so mentally deficient that they would not even allow me in their kindergarten. That was the first time in my life I ever remember feeling really sad.
I don’t know what they told my parents or what my parents said to them, but to my enormous shock and surprise, they DID agree to admit me to their school’s kindergarten class. Thus, I started kindergarten when I was three years old, turning four one month into the school year. I loved every minute of it, and didn’t mind being about two full years younger than the other kids until middle school, when the fact that I was 10 years old rather than 12 like all my classmates was really starting to become apparent, both socially and academically. So when my parents switched me to The Webb School, where I spent the next 6 happy years, they had me repeat the 7th grade year I’d just completed at the school from which I transferred. I remained one of the youngest kids in my class even after the school year do-over, but I was no longer tragically undersized and underaged.
That’s my kindergarten entrance exam story, and as you can tell, the experience of being tested in order to be admitted to my first year of “real” school was extremely traumatic for me. It really was. I had never experienced failure before, but in that few moments of terror, with that orange crayon gripped tightly in my hand, I had my first taste of it, and it wasn’t very pleasant.
Why am I giving you this traumatic personal backstory? Well, it’s because my 4 year old daughter, C, may be taking her own kindergarten entrance exam in the near future. As I explained in an earlier (hotly debated) blog post, we are unlikely to want C to attend the public elementary school for which our street address is zoned, and thus, we are considering the available alternatives, which are limited.
One of the most attractive, perhaps THE most attractive possibility for C’s kindergarten attendance is the public magnet school in a low-income neighborhood only a mile or two from our house. While the school district in which we live has not experienced huge success with its few magnet school programs, this particular elementary school – which I will call School X – is the exception. School X is considered really stellar, and I know many parents who could easily afford private school, or who live in much more affluent public school zones who have chosen to send their kids to School X instead. I am told that the test scores for the kids in the magnet program operating at School X are higher than those in the very highly regarded public elementary school in the toniest neighborhood in town.
So not surprisingly, we plan to put in our application in February for C to be part of the 2012 kindergarten class of School X’s magnet program. If I am understanding the process correctly, all kids who apply are first put into a lottery drawing, where one’s chance of getting selected is random. Everyone has the same shot at a seat in the school’s classroom in this first-phase lottery drawing. But then, if your child is selected via the lottery drawing, he or she has to be…you guessed it...tested in order to be admitted. Only children who place in the 90th percentile or higher in this testing, described on the magnet school website as “academic” in nature, get a classroom slot at the school.
None of my children have been early readers, and C is no exception. At age 4 years, she loves books, and loves being read to, but isn’t showing any real interest or advanced abilities in reading on her own. In fact, she’s just now starting to connect sounds with letters. We haven’t pushed this skill, nor have we pushed any other kindergarten-readiness skill on her because I believe 4 year olds mostly need to play, not study. I know that some preschoolers learn to read early with no real effort on parents’ parts, but in other cases, I do see parents drilling their kids, and that’s not our style. C is very, very advanced verbally, with a large and complex vocabulary and notably adult diction (it’s very cute to hear her expound on things.) But in most ways, she’s your average four year old girl, more interested in dancing along with Yo Gabba Gabba and in pretend-play with her dollhouse than in math flash cards or learn-to-read games on the iPad.
I have no idea what specific skills it would take to score at or above the 90th percentile on an academically oriented kindergarten admittance exam, but I suspect that C might not hit that mark. I already know three or four extremely bright elementary-age students - kids whose parents are friends of mine – who did not “pass’ the kindergarten admission test for School X’s magnet program when they applied in years past. This makes me think that whatever is on that test, it must be pretty rigorous, at least by your average preschooler’s standards.
And here’s the thing, I never, ever, ever want C to have traumatic memories of test-taking at age 4, or of feeling like she “failed” if she doesn’t get a spot in the kindergarten class at that school. So if we make it past the lottery drawing stage, and she even gets a shot at taking the entrance exam, I don’t know what I would tell her about it. I guess we would have to explain what the test is to some degree, but I want to make very sure that we don’t make her feel some sort of pressure or anxiety before, during or after the testing takes place.
There’s a part of me that wants to just take School X off the table. If the super bright kids I know who weren’t admitted after taking the test are any indication, the odds that my own preschooler will make the cut don’t seem that promising to me. And if that’s the case, why put ourselves through the process at all? But on the other hand, I really do think that if we could get her in, this school’s magnet program would be the best fit for her among those available to us.
I’d love to hear y’all’s thoughts on how to handle this. Should we go for it? Or should we just cross this particular school off of our list? And if any of you have been through early childhood testing for admittance to specific schools or programs for your own children, please share what that process was like for you….and more importantly, for your child.
READ MORE FROM KATIE OVER AT MAMAPUNDIT (HER PERSONAL BLOG)